If there had ever been an opportunity to sneak out of the room without confronting the Texan, that opportunity had clearly passed. The black-haired waitress was nowhere to be seen. The bubble of space around our table had previously only been one of impressions: the idea that everyone would pretend not to hear things discussed between professionals and, in return, those same professionals would extend similar courtesies. Now, there was an actual physical vacuum in our surrounding vicinity. Men and women both stopped their dances, their muttered conversations, and their raucous celebrations whenever they drew within a few yards of where we sat; then, as if by unspoken unanimous agreement, they found somewhere else to be.
That left the five of us sitting at the table, like a lonely island in a sea of humanity. Akumi and Sato responded to the Texan’s opening overture by defaulting to the same personalities they’d used on me, at first. Akumi sat up straighter and pulled her jet black hair up into a severe ponytail, clearing her vision and casting her cheekbones in a stark light. Kira slouched slightly and assumed a position that had to be uncomfortable, even though he stayed in that contorted shape without betraying the slightest hint of pain.
Those were their war faces, I realized. Without inside knowledge about their true natures, anyone the Twins dealt with would of course think of Akumi as the more reasonable partner. When she revealed even the slightest glimpse of her actual bloodlust, it would only serve to make Kira look even crazier…even though, in reality, he appeared to function as the steady center to their twisted family unit. They’d attempted to throw me off of my game using the same strategy, except that Mila had firsthand knowledge of their technique.
There was something to that. I couldn’t figure out exactly what that something might be, though.
Mila, for her part, didn’t visibly react to the Texan’s presence. She looked away from the Twins and focused on him, impaling him with the sheer force of her glare, but remained otherwise completely calm. And why wouldn’t she be calm? The Texan wasn’t a physical threat. No bodyguards loomed in his wake, crackling knuckles in anticipation of a fight. The man himself looked like he worked out, sure, but nothing about his demeanor hinted at any combat proficiency. My read on the man could be wrong, obviously, but I didn’t think that I was mistaken.
Mila, Akumi, and Sato all dealt with their problems by exuding a certain aura of control. When that failed, any of the three were capable of doling out extreme amounts of punishment to their enemies in an effort to forcibly make that positions known. I’d seen Mila go to work. If the Twins, either individually or together, were capable of producing even half as much chaos, then they would also qualify as the closest living equivalent to a weapon of mass destruction. In any job where security might be an issue, one of these three or some combination would be exactly the sort of thing I needed. Mila had saved me in Tangiers, after all, and again in Atlanta. She’d probably save my life from mortal peril several more times, before this whole fiasco was finished.
But that wasn’t how the Texan fought. Eschewing the customary trappings of power, he’d carved out a niche for himself as a trader of secrets. The knowledge contained within his head and whatever ledgers he kept for posterity was both less immediately dangerous than the Twins and Mila, but also exponentially more damaging. With a whisper into the right ear, he could probably kick-start a civil war in a criminal organization of his choosing. By making a phone call, he could make or break an assassination attempt. A wink, timed perfectly, could make up the difference between a successful theft and a disastrous trip to prison.
He fought with information. And, if this was to be any form of combat, that meant the burden of our defense fell squarely on my shoulders.
“A deal,” I repeated, dragging out the word to give myself more time to think of to say. “What kind of deal did you have in mind?”
“First things first,’ the Texan said. “You have something for me?”
“Yes and no,” I said. The Texan raised an eyebrow and gestured for me to elaborate. “I have access to it and I can give you access, as well. It was too much information for me to carry around with me every day until we met.”
“I’ll be honest,” he said, leaning over the table and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “I’ve never really been all that good with computers. Got…people to take care of that for me, in a pinch. Now, I could check in with my contact, but you know what?”
He left the question dangling in the air long enough that I sighed and gave him the answer he was looking for. “No, I don’t. What?”
“I believe you,” the Texan said. “You don’t seem like the kind to just lie about business.”
It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.
“About business,” the Texan said, stressing the operative word. “If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. But knowing who I can trust to play it straight is worth losing a little bit of stolen information.”
“That’s awfully kind of you,” I said.
“It’s more pragmatic than anything. If I spent all night wondering which of my informants is telling me the truth and which ones are just lying to my face, I’d hardly have time for anything else.” He examined the table in front of him, then snagged a stuffed mushroom from one of the many plates on display. “Show me what you’ve got and I’ll get my people to take a look at it.”
“And then we’re good?”
“If everything’s the way it ought to be,” the Texan said, smiling.
I found a scrap of paper and wrote down a series of web addresses. I’d only recently created the servers, just before discovering the Mouse’s true identity, and hadn’t bothered to connect them with my network proper. Instead of storing the wealth of information Devlin and I had stolen from the Sovereign, I’d simply indexed the whole thing and uploaded them onto a series of FTP servers. With those addresses, the Texan – or whoever his tech specialist happened to be – would be able to peruse the information contained within at their leisure without requiring me to be there in person.
The Texan accepted the paper with a slight nod, tucking it into his pocket without taking his eyes of the remaining stuffed mushrooms. “You don’t mind, do ya?”
I shook my head. While he gathered the savory treats onto a conveniently empty plate, I formulated a plan of attack. I didn’t know enough about the Texan – what he wanted, what his limits were, what he might be willing to part with and where his absolute limit was -but I wasn’t going to have a chance to study the man, apparently. I’d have to play it by ear.
Or that was my plan, at least. The Texan threw yet another wrench into the works when he finally lifted his eyes from the plate of food, taking in Akumi and Sato in a single offhanded glance. “You two don’t work outside of Japan,” he said. “’less I’m mistaken, you’re a long way away from home.”
The Twins shared a look. The brief moment of eye contact wouldn’t have been enough to convey any significant information for lesser mortals, but they seemed to have carried on a full conversation in the space of a single eye blink.
Kira was the one who spoke. “We have our own business to handle,” he said. I noticed that he’d reverted back to stiff, heavily accented English. Another act, apparently, designed to make people underestimate him.
“Well, I can see that,” the Texan said. “But both of the Sato twins out of Japan at the same time? Must have been something pretty damn important. Only I haven’t heard about anything big, so…did someone finally take out old Goto?”
The question came out of the blue. I reacted without thinking, but my sharp intake of breath was nothing compared to the noises of dismay and shock that escaped the Twins’ mouths.
“What do you know?” Akumi asked. Her eyes narrowed dangerously and one hand crept out of sight beneath the table.
The Texan’s eyes flickered down to her disappearing hand, clearly acknowledging her intention, before he calmly met her gaze. “Not enough, apparently.”
I didn’t know the Twins well enough to calm them, but Mila did. She drummed her fingers against the tabletop just loud enough to get Akumi’s attention, then subtly shook her head. For a long moment, Akumi teetered on the brink of ignoring Mila’s suggestion and I prepared myself to flip a table over and use the crowd as cover. But common sense prevailed and cooler heads won out. Akumi placed both of her hands on the table, palms flat against the surface, and nodded to her brother.
Mila spoke instead. “I can’t speak for these two,” she said, pointing at each of the Twins in turn, “but my ward and I have had just about enough of people trying to impress us by knowing more than they should.”
“You think I’m trying to impress you? If I was trying to do that, I’d start by telling everybody here what your real name is, Emilia.” The Texan held up both hands in the universal sign of surrender before Mila could do much more than growl. “Not that I’m going to do that, of course. Ain’t my style and I don’t got anything to gain. We all got secrets, right?”
“What’s your point, then?” I asked.
“Exactly what I said when I came over to begin with,” the Texan said. “You reached out to me before you left Atlanta. Said you had some information I might be interested in and that I might have ownership of some rumors you could make use of. I’m just trying to make a deal, darling.”
More than almost anything, I wanted to sit down and pick apart the Texan’s brains. For someone so heavily invested in the value of information, he seemed to be a complete black hole as far as personal details went. What I saw was, essentially, all I knew about him. It was all anyone seemed to know about him. With a proper profile, I’d be able to plan around his wordplay, to pierce through his charm and civility down to the core of what made him tick.
Barring that, I wished that Devlin wasn’t drunk. He’d probably be able to do at a glance that kind of deep character study that would require hours for me to pull off.
With an effort, I pushed down those thoughts and focused on the moment. Wishing for better times wouldn’t actually make things better; that burden was on me, and me alone.
“You’ve noticed things going wrong lately, haven’t you?” I asked. I tried to mimic the ‘just between friends’ tone that Devlin occasionally used to draw someone in, but I doubted the efficacy.
“You want to be a little more vague, sweetheart?”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about,” I said. “Don’t play dumb.”
He considered his next words very carefully. “Let’s say that I do,” he said finally. “What about it?”
“There are things you don’t know,” I said. “Things you can barely even guess at. If you can give me the information I’m looking for, maybe I can see fit to share some of what I’ve learned over the last three years.”
A mere whim drove me to lie about the time spent working for the Lady. If the Texan had sources worth the pay, it was possible he’d be able to track where we’d been by comparing it against a list of massive disruptions in the last six months. No reason to give him anything for free, if I didn’t absolutely have to.
“Things I don’t know?” The Texan stroked at some wispy hair on his chin. “I think you might be operating under something of a misunderstanding, darling.”
He pushed a plate out of his way so that he could lean all of his weight on the table. “Let’s see what me and my sources have put together, then. See if maybe I’m a little more in the know than you seem to think.”
I leaned back in my chair and gestured for him to continue. Mila mirrored me, while the Twins sat up straighter and paid strict attention to every word that came out of the Texan’s mouth.
“Let’s see,” he said. “Where to begin? You said you’ve been ferreting out this information over the last couple of years, so…hmm. That would’ve been right around that job in Paris, wouldn’t it?”
I tried to keep my face expressionless, even as I internally marveled at the accuracy of the Texan’s first guess.
“Yeah,” the Texan said. “That’d have to be it. Was kind of a slow season for big jobs. Some drug deals, a few mergers, but not the kind of thing that you look like you’d get involved in. Messy stuff.”
I didn’t say anything, but Akumi did. “I remember,” she said. “We traveled across all of Japan during that time, on orders from Goto. He did not tell us what we were after and, eventually, he said we had done enough.”
The Texan reached into his pocket. I couldn’t hear the click of the recording device he must have activated, but I knew the motions from personal experience. I assumed that everyone at the table would have noticed – he wasn’t being particularly subtle about it – but neither Mila nor the Twins seemed to care. If anything, Akumi seemed slightly more eager than before.
“That fits with what I’ve heard,” the Texan said. “You two were involved in putting down the Inagawa uprising?”
Akumi gave Kira a searching look. After a few seconds, he sighed and nodded. “Among other things,” he said.
“Interesting. Not important to this, but still interesting.” The Texan turned his attention back to me. “Where were we? Three years ago? So there was Paris, and then…Russia? No. Not Russia; I know all of the fellas involved in that catastrophe. Then…ah! There was that bank job in Limassol,wasn’t there? The one where nothing was stolen, but a whole mess of people ended up dead including high ranking members of the Bratva?”
He smiled at his own insight,while I tried to keep a stony expression on my face. It didn’t seem to stop him.
“If that’s right,” the Texan said, “then it’s easy to figure out the highlights and draw out a pattern. You had the Limassol job, then all of that craziness in London, then Macao, and South America.”
“What makes you think there’s a connection?” I risked asking.
“What are the other options?” he countered. “High profile jobs, all of them, but no one stepping up to claim responsibility? No bragging, no strutting around? I don’t buy that.”
“It’s possible,” I said. But it was a weak denial and everyone at the table knew it as soon as the words left my mouth.
The Texan shook his head, smiling to himself. “Either all of this is random and unconnected – and I’ve been doing this too long to start believing in coincidence – or there’s something else going on. Seeing as you hunted me down at my place of relaxation, I’m assuming there’s something else going on.”
He’d missed several key details, but that was to be expected. If the Texan was drawing conclusions from intelligence, collected by his various little birdies, then he couldn’t possibly know about the subtler things we’d accomplished. There was no record of Devlin’s time in prison, or of the Lady’s efforts to free him ahead of schedule. He should have known about Avis, but it was always possible that he’d never thought to examine the information he himself had passed on to us at the Green Light gala. He hadn’t drawn the right connections between us and Hill’s dramatic downfall.
Still, it was damned frightening how close his guesses came to the truth. With the appropriate context, he might have figured everything out all on his own. But he knew nothing about the Lady, so he was following the information down the wrong trail. That wouldn’t hold for long, though. I reminded myself that his affable demeanor wasn’t necessarily his true personality. Hell, even if he was as nice as he appeared to be, that didn’t mean he was stupid. In order to rise to a position worthy of a seat at the Green Light gala, the Texan almost had to possess a ruthless disposition.
“So. I’ll show you mine,” the Texan said, “if you’ll show me yours. Obviously, you’re all tied up in this mess, one way or another. I’ve got informants going dark, long-time allies going at each other with knives in the dark, and blood enemies making protection deals. None of this makes sense, but you…I’m thinking you know exactly what’s going on.”
Feigning ignorance wasn’t a viable strategy anymore. The Texan wouldn’t have agreed to a meeting in the first place if he hadn’t had a fair amount of suspicion about my involvement in developing events. It was the only card I had to play, though, and I spent a few moments considering the best way in which to play it.
“There are some people with skills I’m interested in,” I said carefully. “Computers, network security…that kind of thing. It’s not my strong suit.”
Mila shifted her weight a millimeter, but otherwise didn’t move. It was such a small movement that I didn’t think even the Twins would notice it and they certainly wouldn’t be able to read it. At least, that was what I hoped.
“That’s easy enough,” the Texan said. “Depending on what kind of job you’re looking at, shouldn’t be too tough to rustle up a few specialists. What’d you have in mind?”
I shook my head. “I’m looking for more…uniquely talented individuals. Not the kind of people you just keep on a Rolodex. They might even be more difficult to find than normal, lately. You know, with everything going on in the underworld these days.”
The Texan’s face showed his confusion for a few heartbeats before he understood my meaning. A strange interplay of emotions flashed across his expression. I wasn’t able to catch all of them, but the ones I was able to register and understand resonated with interest, greed, bemusement, and…was that fear? What did he have to be afraid of?
“You’re telling me that you know what’s going on? Who’s pulling these strings? What they’re after?” he asked.
I picked my words with excruciating caution. “I don’t know names,” I said. “But I can point you in the right direction of the people responsible for all the confusion. And trust me: you won’t find anyone else willing to do as much.”
That was true, from a certain perspective. I didn’t know the Lady’s name, or the names of the Magi. And, if I was willing to contort my viewpoint, I could believe that the Magi were ultimately capable for the tumult. If they hadn’t suborned Asher so many years ago, then Devlin wouldn’t have been betrayed at the conclusion of the Paris job. If he hadn’t been betrayed, the Lady wouldn’t have been able to recruit him – and, ultimately, the rest of us -to her cause. If we hadn’t been recruited, who knew how things would have played out?
Even if that didn’t quite hold water, I wasn’t overly bothered by the deception. If the timer ran out, and the Mouse gained access to my entire network, it wasn’t just my life on the line. I couldn’t imagine any scenario where Devlin wouldn’t cheerfully throw himself on any and every available sword, if he thought it would buy me another minute of freedom. Mila would do the same and Michel would be right behind her in line.
Virginia wouldn’t be content to let her baby granddaughter fall to the sorts of scoundrels the Mouse would send after me, but she didn’t fully understand the stakes. To her, the Magi were dangerous, sure, but they weren’t dangerous. Just as they’d very publicly assassinated Hill for his temerity, the Magi wouldn’t blink at killing an aging heiress. After her…I didn’t know how far the Magi would go to ensure their presence remained a secret.
No, my conscience wouldn’t trouble me if I lied to the Texan.
He gave me a searching look and I could almost hear the gears clicking in his mind, as he weighed what I was asking for versus what I had to offer. His lips parted for an instant, then closed, then opened again.
“No,” the Texan said. “I got to say no.”
“No deal,” he clarified. “What you’re asking for…I might be able to pull it off, but it’d cost me. And I’m pretty sure I can get my hands on what you’re offering without having to make a trade for it.”
My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t help it. The Texan, a man who presumably made his living off of secrets, was turning down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn the larget secret of all?
He stood up abruptly, jostling the plates and glasses on the table in the process. “No hard feelings, darling,” he said. “I hope we can still do business again later. And I’ll tell you what: me and the chef got an arrangement. Drinks are on me tonight, in apology for your flight out here.”
I tried, and failed, to formulate a last minute sales pitch. The Texan melted into the crowd before a single word made it past my lips.
“That didn’t work,” Mila said helpfully. “What’s our next option?”
The Texan had been our only option. Without information, there wasn’t any feasible way to track down the remaining members of the Community before my network’s last-ditch defenses fell and the Mouse was free to rampage through my network. If he’d decided, by sheer dumb luck or obstinance or whatever reason motivated him, to remove himself from the field, that left us standing out there without cover or protection.
Everyone at the table – Mila, Akumi, and Sato – watched me expectantly. I shook my head, refusing to make eye contact with them.
“I…I don’t know.”